Friday, October 14, 2016

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Frankenweenie (2012)

Science is not good or bad, Victor. But it can be used both ways. 
That is why you must be careful.

If there's one thing that separates the current Tim Burton from the Tim Burton of the '80s and '90s, it's a sense of tactility.  No matter how fantastical the worlds of Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas are, there is a charm to their tangibility; the use of miniatures and expansive sets give the viewer the sense that they are walking through a fun, haunted house.  What Burton's more current films do a bit too much is - let's say it together now - overuse CGI.  Films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland may employ some of Burton's trademark designs, but many set pieces resemble a video game; far too busy and glossy for their own good.  This is a problem that plagues many films of the 21st Century, but I think I miss seeing movies of Original Burton's particular brand of movie making in particular.  Imagine my excitement in 2012 when I found out that Burton and Disney were making a remake of Burton's own short film Frankenweenie, using stop-motion and in glorious black and white!

Goodbye, Kitty

Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a quiet and creative boy who lives in the conservative town of New Holland with his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) and his beloved dog Sparky (Frank Welker).  Tragically, Sparky is hit by a car and killed, which of course leaves Victor devistated.  Rather than accept Sparky's fate and move on, he gets an idea from his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) to use electricity to bring Sparky back to life.  After many classic movie homages, Victor's test is successful; a patched-up Sparky lives again!  Although he does have a few defects, including a tail that sometimes falls off and a need to feed off electricity to keep his energy up.  Other than that, he's the same old, lovable Sparky.  The other kids at school unfortunately find out about Victor's experiment, and with a big science fair contest coming up, they want in on how it was done. Victor's piers (some of whom resemble characters from the classic Frankenstein movies) attempt to bring back their own dead pets, which leads to chaotic results and plenty more movie homages.

Lightning does not hit a person, like a baseball or a cabbage...

There's so much to like about Frankenweenie, even if at the end of the day it probably could have been better.  One only needs to look at the original live-action short film from 1984 to see where the new version falters when it comes to genuine emotion, particularly when it comes to Victor's parents.  Their reaction to seeing their son's dead dog come back to life in the short is .  The night they find out, they try to comfort each other by saying things like,"Some parents worry about their kids getting into drugs.  I guess we're lucky."  Very little of that black comedy is here; the revelation that Sparky has been brought back from the dead is met with either casual or stilted reactions, which takes away some of the story's heart.  And speaking of the story, there are bits of padding all over and setups that go nowhere.  Much of the story is motivated by an upcoming science fair, but we never see it happen.  A girl next door with love interest potential (Winona Ryder) is squandered.  And Victor himself isn't given a very wide range of emotions, making it harder to get into his head in many crucial scenes.

You're alive! You're alive!

But enough of the bad, let's get into what I love about the movie; atmosphere, classic horror references, and that gorgeous stop-motion animation. The characters in Frankenweenie inhabit a world very similar to that of Edward Scissorhands. It's bleak suburbia, with an cartoonish emphasis on conformity, which is the perfect kind of world for a character like the undead Sparky to enter in and cause a panic.  The creepiest visual, however, isn't Sparky or the other students' undead pets; it's the nightmare-inducing science teacher.  Aside from being a great character, he also helps to demonstrate some of the thematic meaning behind the themes of the story, which is that you can't be afraid to ask questions about life just because no one else is asking them.  There's a scene in an auditorium that's very reminiscent of the creationism vs. evolution wars that happened in schools in the early 20th century (of which, though unspecified, appears to be when Frankenweenie takes place).  That sense of timelessness helps make the monster scenes toward the end more fun as well; kudos to anyone who gets the Gamera reference.  Just me then, huh?

My problem bigger...

While the film's aesthetics are important (the score by Danny Elfman is good, if not his most memorable), they all hinge on whether or not the animation is working.  Though it never quite reaches the heights of Corpse Bride in that regard, it's stunning to behold all the same.  Sparky, in particular, steals the show whenever he's onscreen, with his dog-like ticks and mannerisms and ability to express such clear emotion without having to say a single word.  In fact, he's much more expressive than any of the human characters, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was intentional. The designs of Victor's classmates are distinctive and strange, with some of their designs clearly based on characters from Frankenstein.  Just guess who the next door neighbor, Mr. Bergermeister, is an homage to.

I don't want him in my heart... I want him here, with me...

Frankenweenie isn't afraid to go dark in places (after all, a child losing a pet is a sensitive subject), but it's otherwise a very fun and lightweight movie.  Too lightweight in some places (the concept of moving on when a loved one dies is completely stomped out), but its strengths are definitely on the front lines.  What a shame the movie bombed at the box office, and in October no less.  It means we likely won't get anything from Disney or Burton any time soon of this caliber, so thank god we have Laika to give us stop-motion beauties in the interim.  Nonetheless, I've made Frankenweenie part of my annual Halloween viewing cycle, and I continue to find little details that I'd never seen before.  Beyond the movie's amusing jokes and excellent atmosphere, its best attribute is that wonderful tangibility I miss so much from Hollywood movies.

7 scary teachers out of 10

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Anomalisa (2015)

Jesus, do I love stop-motion animation.  It has a haunting quality when it's done right, and haunting is a good way to describe Anomalisa.  The film lets the audience be confused for a reasonable amount of time before they can sort out the movie's stylistic oddities for themselves.  Those oddities are downright disorienting at first; I won't spoil it here for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but when I realized what was happening and, why it was happening, the film transformed from a slice-of-life love story to a deeply sad, psychological character study.

What is it to be alive?

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the film follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a middle-aged customer service expert visiting Cincinnati to promote his new book.  At his hotel, it's immediately clear that he has trouble connecting with other people.  He even attempts to hook up with his ex-wife, but their dinner date is a disaster.  Then he meets a woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), someone who Michael feels a deep connection with simply by hearing her voice.  The two have an incredibly special night (one that the filmmakers don't shy away from when it comes to the details of intimacy), and Michael is sure he has found "the one."  But such things are only a fantasy, as he discovers that Lisa isn't the person he thought she was very soon after.

Sometimes there is no lesson. That's a lesson in itself.

The illusion of love and the insecurities that go along with it are a major theme in Anomalisa. Michael may be the protagonist, and it's quite easy to empathize with his frustration with the blandness and homogenization of the world.  However, Michael is also controlling and too demanding, making his dissatisfaction with his life partially his own fault.  He perceives the world as a dull, homogenized place full of phony and empty people.  This gives the use of stop-motion puppets (complete with obvious face-plate seams) added resonance because the world Michael lives in is literally all fake. There's even a brilliantly-executed dream sequence where Michael's face plate falls off and the audience can see the gears hiding right beneath his skin.

Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that. 

Lisa herself is a lovely character.  She's such a sweet and innocuous woman, animated and voice acted with charm, insecurity, and awkwardness that's impossible to not find endearing.  Michael calls her an anomaly because when he hears her voice, it stands out against the paleness of the world.  He loves it so much that he asks her to talk. About what? Who cares?  He's infatuated by everything she is and everything he wants her to be.  Until he's suddenly not.  Is that really what love is?  Does it have to be?  I suppose it's up to the viewer to decide whether or not to side with Michael or not.  Can we ever be happy if we expect perfection out of people?  Of course not.  But Michael doesn't love Lisa because she's perfect; in fact, she hides a large scar over her eye with her hair due to her insecurity.  Michael is just far too aware of the phony world he lives in, and he thought he'd finally found someone he could share that feeling with.

Everyone's the same.

All of this is created through truly stunning animation, with character designs and fluid movements that have one toe in the uncanny valley and settings that are distinctly beautiful in how boring they are. The dream sequence is very unnerving and surreal, though it comes later than expected given Kaufman's sensibilities. If the film had two or even three moments like it, I wouldn't have complained.  Being the rare R-rated animated film for adults made for a US audience, there are quite a few visuals that may catch you off guard, especially when it comes to aforementioned intimate moment between Michael and Lisa.  And though I haven't mentioned him yet due to spoilers, Tom Noonan gives an absolutely terrific vocal performance.  Several in fact.

The zoo won't take up too much of your time... it's zoo-sized.

I have tremendous respect for the artists of Anomalisa, for they've created a very special film.  The script is wonderfully layered and profoundly sad, the animation and direction is incredible, and the voice acting is on point.  My favorite element of the movie has to be the artistic decision that I'm really struggling to hold back, and I refuse to reveal it because there was true joy in the discovery. That, my friend, is a rare treasure.  It's absolutely mind-blowing while also being simple, and even if the rest of the movie hadn't been very good, I'd still be recommending it. Thankfully, Anomalisa turns out to be a great movie, one that may not have the solution for loneliness, but it certainly knows the recipe.

9 creepy Japanese sex robots out of 10